Earwax & Ear Health: 3 Reasons to Put That Cotton Swab DownNov. 9, 2020 - Katie McCallum
For the sake of our ear health, it's time to talk about those cotton swabs many of us shove into our ears every day under the guise of personal hygiene.
Once you start this oddly satisfying little habit, it's hard to stop. There's just something about swirling a stick with some cotton at the end around your ear canal that leaves you feeling like your ears are just...well, clean.
But, were your ears actually even dirty in the first place...?
"Your ears are actually designed to be self-cleaning — no cotton swab needed. Earwax naturally moves outward toward the opening of the ear canal until it falls out. And any moisture evaporates on its own," explains Dr. Kenny Lin, an otolaryngologist specializing in ear health at Houston Methodist. "While many people use a cotton swab in their ear without issue, this practice isn't without risks."
Anyone who "cleans" his or her own ears with one has had that moment. You know the one. When swabbing goes from satisfying to painful. Those wake-up calls that remind you that you're definitely not qualified to be sticking things into your ear — the very delicate organ responsible for one of the most important of your five senses.
So, here's everything you need to know about the importance of earwax, what you're actually doing when you shove a cotton swab into your ear and the best earwax removal methods to try when it does feel like it's building up.
What is earwax and why is it important?
Earwax is essentially a mixture of oils and skin debris that collect in your ear canal over time. While it's yellow appearance and waxy texture may make you feel like it's something gross that needs removing, your ear would say otherwise.
"Earwax is a normal thing for a person to have. In fact, it plays a valuable role in maintaining your overall ear health," says Dr. Lin. "Without earwax, you may find yourself with dry, itchy ears all the time."
The important roles of earwax include:
- Preventing infections by maintaining a slightly acidic environment (which is antibacterial!)
- Preventing dirt and dust from getting deep into the ear canal or onto your eardrum
- Providing lubrication and protecting against scratches or trauma
Reason #1 to put that cotton swab down:
Your earwax is there for a reason — to protect your ear. So leave it in there!
Why does earwax build up?
So, earwax is a good thing. But, as the saying goes, too much a good thing can be a bad thing. In the case of earwax, this is when it builds up and blocks between 70 to 80% of your ear canal.
"Some people do have issues with earwax building up to the point that it fills the entire ear canal. An ear canal blocked by earwax can cause mild hearing loss and leave the ear feeling stuffed or plugged up," explains Dr. Lin.
There are several reasons a person's earwax may not be successfully moving out of his or her ear naturally. Reasons earwax may build up include:
- Having dry earwax, which is more common in older adults
- Wearing hearing aids, since these can block earwax movement
- Having excess ear hair, which can trap earwax
- Previous ear surgery, as this can change the anatomy of the ear canal
In addition, you may be wondering if wearing earbuds can cause earwax to build up — like it does in hearing aids.
"If you're only wearing your earbuds for a couple of hours, there's probably no risk of earwax buildup. However, if you're wearing them for 10 to 12 hours every day, it may be time to alternate with headphones that sit over your ear rather than earbuds that sit inside them," recommends Dr. Lin.
If you do have earwax buildup, though, let's address why using a swab isn't only risky, but also not as effective as you may think it is.
Can a cotton swab damage your ear?
If you're here in search for answers about how to use a swab properly, Dr. Lin's advice is to just...not use one. Like not at all.
If you're here because you've had one of those moments and want to know if it's possible to damage your ear with a cotton swab, here's Dr. Lin again:
"It's long enough to reach your ear drum. This means, if you insert it too far into your ear canal, there is a potential for you to inadvertently perforate your eardrum or damage the very delicate bones of hearing," warns Dr. Lin.
While we're talking about the cons of using one, now seems like a good time to address another reason people may reach for one every day: To dry their ears after a shower. If tilting your head side-to-side just isn't enough to help you feel like your ears are water-free, is a cotton swab the only way to get it out of there?
"As a safer alternative, I recommend using a hair dryer set to low and aimed at your ear — just be sure to keep it four to six inches from your head."
Risks aside, using one to remove earwax just...doesn't even work. In fact, you could be making your earwax situation worse.
"When you use a cotton swab, you may inadvertently push earwax deeper into your ear canal," explains Dr. Lin. "You may not get much earwax out and you end up making it harder for your ear to naturally clean itself out."
Reason #2 to put the cotton swab down:
It's not just risky, it's flat-out ineffective.
Earwax removal tips — expert ones
So, if a cotton swab can't help clean your ears, what can?
"My recommendation for normal ear care is to start by doing nothing, letting your ear clean itself out naturally. This will work for the majority of people," explains Dr. Lin. "However, if it seems like wax is building up in your ear, resulting in it feeling clogged or pressurized, there are things you can safely try at home."
Dr. Lin recommends the following at-home earwax-removal methods:
- Use mineral oil or baby oil. Once or twice a week, you can place a few drops of mineral oil or baby oil in your ear before bed and use a cotton ball to prevent it from seeping onto your pillow as your sleep. The oil will help soften any earwax that is dry and contributing to buildup.
- Try a commercial earwax softener. Similar to mineral or baby oil, over-the-counter earwax softeners can help your earwax maintain a more liquid consistency, allowing it to move out of your ear easier. Earwax softeners are sometimes sold in kits that also include a rubber bulb or plastic syringe that can help "flush out" your ear, but Dr. Lin recommends avoiding these items since pressurized streams of water could potentially damage your eardrum.
Reason #3 to put the cotton swab down:
There are safer earwax removal alternatives that are far more effective.
"At-home earwax removal methods can be effective if you have a mild or moderate degree of earwax buildup, but wax can build up in your ear beyond that — to the point that it causes discomfort and reduces hearing. In these cases, the person should see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or a primary care physician to help with earwax removal," says Dr. Lin.